Mike Keneally – You Must Be This Tall (2013)

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Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Mike Keneally, beyond his sheer talent, is that he continues to put out such consistently enjoyable music.

It’s not just that he makes good music for someone this far into his career — You Must Be This Tall is either his 14th album or 19th album, or maybe the number is higher, depending on how you count his various releases in solo, band, or collaborative incarnations — it’s that they’re all good and all challenge listeners in a good way with every play.

There is a spirit of joy that runs rampant throughout Keneally’s catalog. You won’t necessarily be laughing while listening to his music, but such a gifted musician is he, backed by equally gifted musicians when he needs to be, you will find yourself grinning at what you’re witnessing. It’s an essence of endless exploration without something that shipwrecks so many other talented performers: grandstanding. The pervading feeling of Keneally’s music is that when he settles in to write music, it’s very much with the excited mindset of simply trying to find where one note can lead to that it hasn’t lead to before.

You Must Be This Tall comes out of nowhere after 2012’s collaboration with former XTC leader Andy Partridge, Wing Beat Fantastic, where Keneally performed songs he and Partridge wrote together. Their work together has clearly brushed off on Keneally. While he has always had a strong ear for hooks, something has changed with the pairing, and his penchant for happy brain-worm hooks has tightened considerably, as if Partridge was the Yoda to his Luke Skywalker. The result is an album that comes across as a kind of condensed companion to 1999’s instrumental Nonkertompf blended with some of the oddball sensibility that came back to the fore in the later Scambot 1, and even a little guitar heroics of Dog mixed in for good measure.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: We go inside ‘You Must Be This Tall’ with Frank Zappa alum Mike Keneally, and discuss the future of his collaborations with XTC’s Andy Partridge.]

The instrumental “Cornbread Crumb” conjures impressions of the late ’70s, with a touch of a Steely Dan vibe, bits of which were glimpsed earlier this year with the release of the outtakes album Wing Beat Elastic, while “Kidzapunk” has me pulling up the Police’s “Canary In A Coalmine” — not a copy in any way, but there’s a nod in there to Andy Summers’ economical guitar sensibilities. Extra points are awarded for incorporating a snippet of a bit of John Oswald’s Plunderphonics 69/96 (and, of course giving him credit.)

“Cavanaugh’s” low-key, keyboard-driven march feels more epic than its actual length implies, while actual epic “The Rider” grows more and more grand as it progresses. For those who had been missing some of Keneally’s fantastic acoustic guitar work since Wooden Smoke, “Popes” fills some of that need, and “Glop” is aimed right those jonesing for a Mahavishnu-esque guitar freak-out.

Of particular note is “Indicator.” XTC fans will guess immediately that this is a track crafted with Andy Partridge’s input and they’d be right. Partridge’s touch is impossible to overlook. But what they might not immediately grasp is that this is also one that bears his actual musical input. As on much of the album, Keneally provides guitar in addition to keyboards, bass, and other instruments, but here Andy Partridge appears on guitar as well as having crafted the drum loops supporting the track.

The rest of the album plays host to regular Keneally collaborators. When Keneally himself isn’t handling all instrumental duties, the great Marco Minnemann sits in on drums, along with the Mike Keneally Band consisting of Joe Travers on drums, Rick Musallum on guitar, and longtime bassist Bryan Beller — and a small assortment of other musicians adding in their talents (April West, Matt Resnicoff, Missy Andersen).

You Must Be This Tall ends up being an amalgam of Keneally’s career; a nutshell encasing a little bit of everything he is capable of without feeling in the slightest bit watered down. It could make for a friendly introduction for new fans, and for long time fans, all the twists and turns that have kept them coming back are there in abundance.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Tom Johnson
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